Morgan Lewis Jr.

Wednesday, 31 July 2002 11:03

Mixed message

Pat Perry is fed up.

Sitting in an airy office conference room, the usually genial president of the Employers Resource Council, Northeast Ohio's largest employers' association, is uncharacteristically ticked off. He leans forward, his voice gets louder, his cheeks flush, his hand strikes the table.

"It isn't the weather that sends people out of Northeast Ohio," Perry exclaims. "Where we hurt is our business community competitiveness. We should become the model in the United States in saying Northeast Ohio understands how to develop terrific places to work, that's how they're attracting talent to the region and keeping it."

But that doesn't appear to be the case. Perry has just reviewed the results of the 2002 Workplace Practices Survey the ERC conducts every year in partnership with SBN Magazine. The survey looks at human resources issues including wages, benefits, screening, information disclosure and hiring. The 243 responses this year were the most in the survey's three-year history, more than doubling last year's return.

Companies from small tool and die shops to publicly traded corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue responded to the ERC/SBN Workplace Practices survey. The average respondent had 185 employees and annual sales of $62 million, double the size of last year's average respondent. The majority of this year's respondents, 124, were manufacturers, but companies from 43 other industries, including distribution, nonprofit and retail, also participated.

Even with a much larger sample, the results mirror last year's numbers. The similar results are surprising in light of the economic changes between August 2001 and 2002, but disappointing, Perry says, because many Northeast Ohio employers still say they're battling the same problem: attracting and retaining qualified employees.

"There is some irony in these results," Perry says. "The irony is we put retention at the top, but as organizations in Northeast Ohio, we're not doing all we can in terms of some basic meat-and-potatoes practices to help retain people."

The ERC/SBN Workplace Practices Survey is voluntarily filled out by employers and ERC members, so not all the same companies respond each year. The questions, however, remain the same. Although unscientific, the survey still points to trends in Northeast Ohio workplaces, which we explore in our special report.

"You've got to have a leader in there that sees the big picture and how developing a much better workplace is going to correlate into increased sales, reduced expenses and yielding enhanced profitability," Perry says. "And not all leaders in Northeast Ohio get it. The sooner that they make changes to become a great organization, the sooner they're going to be able to effectively compete in this global economy and more effectively compete in Northeast Ohio."

Employers do appear to get it when it comes to some employee incentives. More than 91 percent offer 401(k) plans, 87 percent offer financial assistance to employees to upgrade their skills, 73 percent offer cash bonuses to nonmanagement employees and 71 percent offer long-term service awards.

But much more needs to be done. The old ways need to change.

The key to retention is communication with employees, but only half of the survey respondents indicated that people in the organization know the company's mission statement.

Just 62 percent review financial information quarterly, and more than 25 percent don't distribute job descriptions.

"Organizations who intend to retain high-caliber employees need to overcommunicate," Perry says. "You do that by ensuring that you know what the mission of the company is, that they understand where the company stands from a financial perspective, that they have written job descriptions."

Few employers offer attractive benefits like childcare assistance or eldercare (9 percent and 6 percent), and less than half, 48 percent, offer flexible schedules. With more dual-income households and more employees taking care of elderly parents, these benefits should be expected, not unique.

"These benefits really don't cost a lot of money, but could make a big difference in employees' lives," Perry says. "These are terrific retention strategies and tools."

Along with attracting and retaining good employees, employers said they're struggling to increase revenue and profits, according to the survey. Many respondents expressed concern about encroaching foreign competition and containing benefits costs.

One manufacturer which has figured out how to keep employee morale high while improving productivity is Fairlawn-based Bioproducts Inc. The 75-year-old pet food flavor and vitamin manufacturer cut its voluntary turnover rate in half, from 18 percent in 1998 to 9 percent last year. The company also had no layoffs last year and reduced its recruitment costs by 40 percent.

"It starts at the top with the CEO and the values that he brings to the organization that trickle down through the organization," says Robert Adamov, Bioproducts vice president, human resources. "We make our share of mistakes, but you'll see people walking into each other people's office and apologizing when they blow it."

Adamov says part of Bioproducts' employee satisfaction secret is its incentive plan, which includes informal performance bonuses like a thank you note or a free lunch, and more extravagant perks like airline tickets or company-sponsored trips. There are also standard formal incentives like promotions and pay raises based on seniority.

It's not just extra cash and gifts that help boost employee satisfaction and performance. After an employee survey showed a demand for skill and executive development, Bioproducts launched its CareerBuilder and LeaderBuilder programs. CareerBuilder is a Web-based system to help employees form their career goals and chart what they need to do to get there. LeaderBuilder is a management development program culled from the expertise of the University of Michigan, Northwestern University and M.I.T.

"Employees who want the organization to succeed will consistently go the extra mile to help the organization achieve its goals," Adamov says. "(Bioproducts) is very good at sharing the wealth with all of its employees."

In a recession year, Bioproducts reached 94 percent of its profit goal even when all employees were awarded bonuses.

Cash-strapped companies unable to invest in incentive or executive education programs can still attract and retain top employees by simply breaking from the old ways.

"What you find is that more traditional organizations have been able to take dollars that they're spending on traditional comp and benefits programs and shift those to more creative applications," Perry says. "In fact, many organizations are finding that the traditional benefits, compensation and work schedules were even more costly."

At the ERC, employees work staggered shifts, with some arriving early as 6:30 a.m. and some leaving as late as 6:30 p.m. Not only are ERC workers more satisfied with a nontraditional work schedule, the organization's members get four more hours of service each day.

"It cost us nothing," Perry says. "You've got to shift out of the traditional paradigm and take some risks. The right people you take risks with are the ones that are going to carry your organization to the Holy Grail."

Here are the other issues we cover in our report.

Open book management

With the collapse of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and many other companies, employees are now more concerned with what's going on in their employer's books.

Are employers sharing financial information? How are they doing it? Company newsletters are popular, but are too often reserved for promotion announcements, event reminders and vague letters from the president about how the company is doing.

SBN explores this issue and how to best keep employees aware.

Benefits

Health care costs jumped again this year, and controlling those costs was one of the top 10 concerns of employers who responded to the survey.

The average employer asks employees to pay about 22 percent of their health care premium, nearly identical to the amount reported in the previous two years of the survey. Yet, almost 14 percent of employers this year said they still pay for all their employees' medical insurance premiums, while many offer no health care coverage at all.

SBN explains how employers on both ends of the spectrum manage costs.

Web-based training

More than 64 percent of employers reported they would pursue Web-based training for their employees if it were available, but few actually take advantage due to the expense. Some larger companies like Pioneer-Standard, Philips Medical Systems and Ohio Savings Bank have taken the lead in Web-based training.

SBN tells the story behind Pioneer-Standard's unique training program.

Online recruiting

Newspaper help wanted ads are losing popularity among Northeast Ohio employers, according to the survey. More companies are posting job openings on the Web, and for good reason.

Web ads are cheaper, they reach more job hunters and they usually offer a quicker turnaround time. SBN explains how Web classified ads are coming of age.

Temporary vs. part time

For human resource directors, it's always a question of whether to hire a part-time employee or whether using temporary workers on an as-needed basis is more effective.

According to this year's survey, companies use both types of workers equally, although temporary workers seem to be gaining a slight edge. SBN weighs the benefits of each type of employee, and which would be the best fit for your company.

Wage battle

Often, increasing hourly wage or yearly salary is dictated by a collective bargaining agreement or pay scale. But when it's up to you, how do you decide when and by how much to raise your employees' wages?

How can you keep your salaries competitive to attract new workers but still control your greatest expense? SBN explains how to develop a sound wage structure. How to reach: Employers Resource Council, (216) 696-3636

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:34

Planting the seeds

It's a sunny, warm afternoon in late May. It's the middle of the week and you're stuck in a stuffy conference room listening to someone ramble endlessly about next year's sales forecast.

This is where you work.

Meanwhile, in the backyard of your house, tall shade trees sway in a gentle spring breeze, overlooking a lush green lawn as the sounds of birds and lawn sprinklers fill the air.

This is where Phil Fogarty works.

"I love being able to walk through some guy's beautiful landscape that I'm taking care of and he's stuck in his office with no fresh air," Fogarty says. "It's great because you get the satisfaction of pulling up to a house you're taking care of and folks are out using their lawn, kids are running around."

With descriptions like these, who could blame Fogarty for wanting to get back into the shoes of a lawn care business owner after two years off?

In 1998, Fogarty sold his business, Crowley's Lawn Service, to Scotts Co. At the time, Scotts was aggressively expanding its lawn service subsidiary and Crowley's was the largest independent service provider in the Cleveland area, with more than 15 employees and $1 million in annual sales.

Fogarty stayed on with Scotts after the acquisition to help it set up new markets and look for acquisitions of other lawn care companies. He continued the relationship not only for the regular paycheck but because of a desire to have a national influence over the lawn care industry, an industry he'd grown to love despite a grass allergy he'd had since starting work at Crowley's in 1980.

"That went fine for the first year; it was kind of my dream job for me," Fogarty recalls of the year after the sale. "The idea of being a part of something bigger, that really was impetus for selling in the first place."

Chasing dreams

One year later, however, the push to expand Scotts lawn service stalled when the company invested heavily in its acquisition of the Ortho and Roundup product lines. Months passed.

Although Fogarty was still collecting a check and operating Crowley's Vegetation Control, a smaller weed control offshoot of the lawn service, his goal of being a part of a national leader in lawn care had come to a screeching halt.

"At one point I said, 'This is kind of silly. There are a lot of other things I could be doing,'" Fogarty says. "I suggested that somehow we part company."

Not long after Scotts agreed, Fogarty was approached by fellow lawn care service owner Robert Ottley, who owns One Step Tree & Lawn Care in upstate New York. Ottley's offer was to subfranchise a Canadian lawn care company in the U.S. as part of an ownership group.

The franchise, Weed Man, founded in 1973, was Canada's largest lawn care service provider, with sales of more than $55 million and 135 franchises. The company is growing so quickly that franchise opportunities are awarded from a waiting list only.

Stacking up the competition

After visiting Canada and being impressed by the growth and operations of Weed Man, Fogarty and Ottley, along with four other successful lawn service business owners, invested in franchise territories. They plan to build Weed Man into the second largest lawn care franchise in the United States. Fogarty readily admits he and his partners have no aspirations to go head-to-head with $1 billion industry leader TruGreen-ChemLawn and try to overtake its commanding market share.

But, according to Weed Man estimates, TruGreen-ChemLawn has only about a 60 percent customer retention rate. That means about 40 percent of its business -- or about $400 million of its sales -- is ready for Weed Man to scoop up. The team's goal is to become the dominant No. 2 player, boosting Weed Man system sales to between $150 and $200 million within the next 10 years.

"In order to grow and keep growing, they have had to buy out competitors," Fogarty says of TruGreen-ChemLawn. "In turn, they have a very poor reputation for service. They're getting better, but they still lose a lot of customers. "

The six subfranchisors have master franchise rights for Weed Man in territories covering 20 states and about 150 million people. They hope to sell 60 to 80 franchises in each territory and collect royalty fees paid by each one they sell. Fogarty and Ottley own the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania territory and set up a parent company called Growing Opportunities LLC to manage it.

Fogarty believes the key to Weed Man's success in the States will be the local support the subfranchisors offer franchisees. During his days as owner of Crowley's, Fogarty saw franchises come and go because the corporate office didn't know the area and didn't help the franchise owner solve problems.

"If somebody in Columbus is operating one of our franchises and has technical issues or business issues that they want to resolve or they want to get together, we're here," Fogarty says. "We're going to be able run things together and build a business together."

Handling noncompete issues

In most cases of a business sale, the buyer designs a strict noncompete agreement that prohibits the seller from taking the money, starting up a similar business with a different name and raiding the former's customer base. Luckily, Fogarty wasn't bound to a strict noncompete agreement when Ottley approached.

When the Scotts expansion slowed, Fogarty asked if the company would let him get back into the lawn care business if he encountered the right opportunity. Scotts agreed, but barred him from soliciting the customers it bought from him until after 2001.

Fogarty says Scotts didn't request the noncompete agreement in writing, but he gave it to the company anyway.

"I had a real good relationship and still do with Scotts," Fogarty says. "I still help with things locally and they're friends of ours. But, just so we were clear about everything, after 2001, all bets are off."

South of the border

To build Weed Man in the United States, an American company called Turf Holdings Inc. was formed as the master franchise company. But before it could start selling territories to Fogarty and his colleagues, it had to jump through many bureaucratic hoops, thanks to Federal Trade Commission regulations.

"All of the laws that pertain to franchising in the U.S. are much more advanced to what we have in Canada," says Roger Mongeon, president of Turf Holdings and Weed Man franchise operator since 1987. "It's much more strict and more demanding. There's a lot of federal filings. We also have to do filings in 15 states. The paperwork is quite significant."

The 91-page Unified Franchising Offering Circular, or UFOC, is the main document all franchise operations have to submit to the government before they can expand. The document took about six months to complete with all the revisions and legal approvals.

Fogarty has been aggressively seeking out franchise owners, and more Weed Man franchise territories in the States are in negotiations. The company should have about half the country covered by next year, pushing Fogarty closer to the goal he set for himself when he sold Crowley's in 1998.

"You want to keep challenging yourself and keep broadening your scope of influence," Fogarty says. "So that's where this led me. I was part of the original partnerships to bring this into the country and we can have a giant impact on the market now." How to reach: Phil Fogarty, Growing Opportunities LLC, (216) 410-5489

Morgan Lewis Jr. (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter at SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:33

A streetwise MBA

Every year, thousands of companies and budding executives dump billions of dollars into MBA programs.

As the programs grow in popularity, they have generally become a way to bolster a resume or earn a promotion, rather than a way to build business expertise.

In his recently published book, "24 Hour MBA: Five Power Workshops for Business Success," author Alexander Hiam -- who picked up his MBA at the University of California-Berkeley -- says business schools often waste students' time and money by not helping them build the practical skills they need in the workplace.

"I found the standard MBA course content, whether it was packaged in an MBA program or one of the many books based on it, geared toward big business of 20 years ago," says Hiam, a former MBA instructor. "I don't see it as relevant to the average person in business today."

Like physical exercise, Hiam believes that a little time spent each day learning on your own can be much more profitable in the long run than two years in a formal MBA program.

"I crunched some numbers and figured out that the average businessperson spends only three minutes on professional training per day," Hiam says. "What if you doubled that? If you spend an extra few minutes a day studying the right kind of relevant skills in the workplace, it can have a big impact on your career."

A corporate consultant for companies like Kellogg's, Coca-Cola and General Motors, Hiam has four tips to help you get that all-important mental edge on the competition.

Teach yourself something new every day

Hiam estimates that a half-hour of self study a day is at least 10 times as beneficial as what the best-trained employees at the wealthiest companies receive in formal training.

"Business is changing very fast," he says. "It's more competitive than ever. The people who succeed are on a faster learning track than others."

Keep an inquisitive, curious outlook

Ask questions, lots of them, Hiam says. Just because you're the boss and supposed to have all the answers doesn't mean you do or even should.

"That's a terrible expectation, it shuts things right down," he says. "If you ask more questions than other people, you're going to learn more and you're going to come across more new, good ideas. You're going to be an innovator."

In his research, Hiam discovered that people who ask twice as many questions during business negotiations were more effective and ran into fewer sticking points than those who assumed they understood the other sides' position.

Focus on the soft skills

Strong interpersonal skills and a focus on personal attitudes and behaviors will help anyone who wants to advance in business today -- especially those in a managerial role.

"Human behavior is a very powerful lever to affect bottom line results," Hiam says. "If you can get managers to be more considerate, employees perform better and they interact with customers to make the customers happier. The company can be significantly more profitable."

Communicate with a filter

One of Hiam's favorite statistics is that most people in business handle an average of 178 communications per day but fewer than half are necessary. Too many people are wasting ideas or uncontrolled feelings when they communicate instead of sharing something of real value.

Before speaking, stop for a fraction of a second and think, "OK, what am I going to say here, and is it worth saying?" You'll be amazed at how much this simple filter catches. How to reach: Alexander Hiam, Adams Media Corporation, (781) 767-8000

Morgan Lewis Jr. (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter at SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:33

To serve and protect

Computers, copiers, fax machines and network servers. The machines you use to run your business are evolving into much simpler, but more intelligent machines -- machines that will communicate with more than one software platform and allow for self-installation and maintenance.

But, while the machines are getting smarter, the criminals who use computers to break into your system to steal trade secrets, client information and intellectual property are finding ways to crack into these systems. Here are some new equipment trends to help your business run smarter and safer.

Network appliances

Why shouldn't your computer server be as simple as your microwave oven or refrigerator? For many small- to medium-sized businesses, employees just want to be able to see, share and print files with other computers in the office.

While a Windows NT or Novell server may to everything you want it to do, many of their expensive features might be unnecessary for your company's limited needs, says Macy Hallock, president of APK Net Ltd. in Cleveland.

"What you're beginning to see is network and Internet devices that are appliances. They require very little set-up and very little administration," says Hallock. "They do a fairly limited number of tasks. It does them just right and it does them with little or no training.

"There are a number of companies that are bringing this product to the market right now, but the awareness is only just beginning."

Security

Because the new appliance servers are simple and inexpensive enough to be purchased at a local computer store, they open up a new host of security threats to the information within the server, Hallock says. He recommends calling a professional to set up some kind of security measure, or firewall, that stands between your computers and those on the outside.

"A lot of people don't understand that their local area network is probably not built from a security standpoint; it needs to be managed. A lot of small businesses are not managing that properly because they don't understand it."

Fast and sloppy copies

The copier giants unleashed their digital and networked copiers and color copiers this year, marking a huge step forward for those office products. Next year, the devices will be faster -- up to 150 pages per minute -- but the newer color copiers seem to sacrificing quality for speed, says Paul Hanna, president of Meritech Blue.

"We're watching that very closely because we're a quality house, so we won't carry a product unless it meets our expectations," says Hanna. "Now it seems that the Y2K fears have gone away -- everybody was geared up for that -- so now they're just improving the equipment."

As far as fax machines and copiers, there hasn't been a revolutionary product released since the latest wave of networked equipment, Hanna says. And that paperless office you've been hearing about is still a long way off.

"They keep talking about paper, and we keep selling machines and moving lots of paper," he says. "I don't see a shrinkage in usage at all."

Digitize your voice

Some small- to mid-sized businesses are taking advantage of Voice over Internet Protocol technology, which allows real-time digitized voice signals to be sent over a data network using a PC or an ordinary touchtone phone. Tom Cox, vice president of retail sales for ICG Communications, says the technology still has some kinks, but consumers and businesses have been able to save 50 percent on long distance and international calls.

"Data networks do not charge for the distance a call travels, unlike public switched telephone networks," Cox says. "This technology also allows for enhanced interactivity on Web communities."

The Voice over Internet Protocol compresses voice messages into digital packets to travel over the data network in real time, then expands the packets so they can be heard over a telephone network or PC. While several companies carry VoIP technology, find out if your carrier will use a public Internet or private data network.

Private data networks, while more expensive, have a higher quality of service and better reliability, Cox says

Wireless winners

With everyone from middle-schoolers to retirees carrying a cell phone and a handheld PDA, wireless technology will continue to infiltrate the office of 2001, Hallock says. The newer handheld products will be networked to communicate with both your local area wireless network and the Internet. Handheld Web surfing will shift toward PDAs because cell phones are just getting too small for the sites, Hallock says.

"I think you're going see wireless networks in a lot of small office and home office environments where they don't want to do a whole lot with wiring. Between cordless phones and wireless networks, we're going to be able to sit in the pool and get work done.

"It's a great fantasy and it's all here now." How to reach: APK Net, (216) 241-7166; Meritech Blue, (216) 459-8333; ICG Communications, www.icgcom.com

Morgan Lewis (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:33

Spreading the word

Organizations that do the most good often struggle for funds because it's expensive to design and print the eye-catching brochures, publications and mailings needed to attract potential donors.

The James J. Roop Co., a Cleveland-based public relations firm, has done something to change that. Roop and his small team of account executives and graphic designers annually donate $40,000 in pro bono services to educational groups including Boy's Hope/Girl's Hope, Urban Community School and Care Alliance so their voices can be heard.

Boy's Hope/Girl's Hope puts about eight underprivileged children in foster home settings and assists with their tuition to private schools like St. Ignatius and Walsh Jesuit. In the new setting, students are often equipped to perform better in school and earn scholarship money to attend college.

Since 1991, 100 percent of the program's high school graduates have gone on to college.

This year, Roop's firm helped design Boy's Hope/Girl's Hope's annual report and plan its strategic publicity and fund-raising efforts. Although Boy's Hope/Girl's Hope is a national program, Roop's efforts and funds go to help students in the Cleveland area.

Roop says education is always a top priority when considering the dozens of organizations that solicit his firm every year. That's followed by human services organizations and those committed to the arts.

"It's not about just coming in and doing your job from 9 to 5, it's also about looking at what else is out there," Roop says. "I think the area we can be most effective is in the planning and the implementation of a graphic design program. Invariably, that is something they'll have to end up paying for outside because it's a specialized area that not everyone can do."

Roop's company has created promotional brochures and the annual report for Urban Community School, a private elementary school for inner-city Cleveland children.

"I think the school has a big impact," he says. "It has had an excellent success ratio of taking kids from underprivileged neighborhoods and giving them a first-rate education."

Roop also serves on the board of directors for Boy's Hope/Girl's Hope and the endowment committee of Urban Community School.

For Care Alliance, which provides health care services for the needy, Roop's company coordinated, designed, edited and printed the 1999 annual report when another vendor fell through three weeks prior to deadline. Even though these groups don't pay for services, Roop's firm treats the charitable projects as if they were coming from paying clients.

"We do support a lot of groups that are near and dear to our clients, but most of those tend to be near and dear to us, too," Roop says. "Big companies are basically not as able to carry as much of the ball as they used to, so if the smaller business don't get involved, they're going to be missing support."

In addition to its pro bono work, Roop's company has donated more than $15,000 to charitable organizations, including the Malachi House, the Center for Families and Children and the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. How to reach: James J. Roop Co., (216) 902-3800

Morgan Lewis (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:32

If it ain't broke

You may have seen it while strolling the aisles of your local auto parts store or Wal-Mart. You certainly can't miss it; it doesn't look like any of the other cans on the shelves.

In fact, the can looks more like an advertisement than something you'd actually buy and use.

It's called PB B'Laster, a mechanical lubricant that can loosen even the most rusted, corroded nut or bolt, and it comes in a colorful, word-laden can that makes it stand out among its more traditionally packaged competitors.

B'Laster Chemical Cos. Inc. of Valley View manufactures the product, along with 20 other chemical products for the car, boat and home. Bill Westley, who founded B'Laster Chemical in 1950, was a bathtub chemist who returned from World War II and vowed to never return to his job selling office machines for IBM or wear a suit and tie to work again.

Westley sold the company in 1980 after two of his early products were bought out by what is now the Blue Coral Co. But PB B'Laster, which was developed for workers in the phosphate mines in Florida, remains B'Laster Chemical's cornerstone product, explains Bill Matthews, COO and executive vice president.

"Underground, there's a lot of corrosion. There's a lot of heavy equipment down there that would get rusty," Matthews says, explaining PB B'Laster's origins. "Once (equipment) was down there a year, they couldn't get it out because they couldn't take it apart. They had to go in there with torches and blowtorch it apart."

Westley, who had a friend in the phosphate mining industry, arrived in Florida with his product and the miners were able to dismantle their equipment without destroying it. Westley was lauded as a hero.

But that's where his inventive nature ended and his vision for advertising took over. He fashioned his approach the only way he knew how -- from the consumer's point of view. So when he started marketing PB B'Laster for the consumer market, he designed the cans by cutting words out of the newspaper and gluing them to the can, often with misspellings.

"It was a big, ugly can of words," says Tom Porter, CEO of B'Laster Chemical. "We took at least 50 percent of the words off that can and it's still packed."

Today, the label serves as a lesson in what not to do in product packaging in the retail market: Five colors, different sizes and styles of text cluttering every inch and strange diagrams with dubious promises.

"When we looked at the label, that was one of the things that we researched that really stuck out in the aisles for B'Laster," says Paul Collins, vice president at Watt/Fleishman-Hillard Advertising in Cleveland, which handles B'Laster's advertising. "It's so contradictory to how everything is marketed productwise in the automotive aftermarket, but it's really stuck out and people love it."

The product has developed such a following because of its quality, which also helped the can's distinctive look become part of its brand identity. That's a fact Porter says he learned when he sent out a shipment of PB B'Laster with red caps on the can instead of yellow.

"We were getting calls from people saying, 'This product doesn't work, you changed it, we want the stuff with the yellow cap on, what did you do?'" Porter says. "We were also getting calls, 'We like the B'Laster with the yellow cap, but we love the red cap B'Laster. What did you guys do?' We told them we just put a different cap on, but the perception out there was something changed and it's different now."

So Porter and the company stuck with the tried and true and left the packaging alone. As Porter says he's found, it's not smart to mess with an icon.

But while the company's identity is pinned to PB B'Laster, Porter says there are two other reasons for the company's rampant growth over the past 20 years.

First, B'Laster Chemical's state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Valley View is really the key, Porter explains.

When the Porter family bought the company, all the products were assembled by hand and workers could produce 300 cases a day. Today, 7,000 to 8,000 cases can be shipped each day.

"Most everybody contracts packaging, but we do it right here," Matthews says. "We went to outside sourcing, but the problem there is you're at somebody's mercy."

Porter adds, "And the profit margin, we just couldn't find anyone who could make it a cheap as we do. Our plant's a profit center."

Second is product sales. B'Laster saw a spike in sales thanks to its introduction at Wal-Mart stores across the country, a trend Matthews says will continue, and not just at Wal-Mart.

"There's a whole segment of the retail industry -- these dollar stores -- which I never knew about. The numbers are astronomical, just unbelievable. That's where we are setting our sights on now."

B'Laster products are sold in about 13,000 stores and are being test marketed in Home Depots in the Southeast, which could put the products in 70 more stores.

"To be honest, we could have a new product tomorrow," Porter says. "We're not afraid to spend money to try something and fail at something. We've done a lot of that.

"Trial and error, and error and error." How to reach: B'Laster Chemical Cos Inc., (216) 901-5800

Morgan Lewis (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter at SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:32

Global checklist

SS&G Financial Services' search for accountants in South Africa may be unusual for its industry, but high-tech and IT companies have been recruiting in countries including India, Taiwan and China since the computer revolution began.

On his recent recruiting trip to South Africa, SS&G equity partner and South African native Gary Isakov saw many tech companies vying for workers.

"There's a lot of recruiters out there, some for accounting firms, but mostly for IT companies," says Isakov. "When I was there, there were many advertisements for technology companies looking for people to come over to the United States and England. They've been recruiting there for a long time."

Don Stallard, CEO of The Reserves Network, a Cleveland-based executive and professional recruiting firm, says his company has been able to fill slots through domestic searches, but has been approached by companies to look overseas.

"I think the technical is a heck of a lot easier to recruit for because there's not a lot of additional training when it comes to technical principles," Stallard says. "Fortunately, we haven't had to gear up to recruit on an international basis and worry about the immigration laws and works visas and all those good things you have to do to get people here."

That said, here are some tips to consider before looking for workers outside the States.

Find a source for prevailing wage

Federal law requires employers to pay immigrant workers the same wage they would pay an American citizen for the same job. It's important to find a good source that will deliver you a valid prevailing wage for that particular job, says Barton A. Bixenstine, a labor attorney at Ulmer & Berne in Cleveland who specializes in employment immigration law.

Bixenstine usually recommends to his clients that they ask a reputable private human resources firm for a prevailing wage quote rather than ask the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services.

"The down side of that is that once the state gives you that wage, you're stuck with it," he says. "If you want to challenge that, you have to go through a lengthy appeals process. Not a good idea if you're in a hurry."

Get a head start

Why wait until you have a job to fill before you start your labor search? If you know the position will be available in six months or less, start the paperwork for the work visa now, Bixenstine says.

"You can go get a certification even for a position you're contemplating."

School records count

Diplomas, college transcripts and other school records are required to obtain a work visa in the United States. Unfortunately, if the potential employee got his or her education overseas, those records may take the most time, Bixenstine says.

If the records are in a foreign language, make sure you find a service to translate them and certify that the country's education system meets American requirements. Says Bixenstine, "You can throw in years of experience as a substitute for years in college, too."

Create clear job expectations

Just because you spent a lot of time and money bringing someone into the country doesn't mean the employee can't be fired.

Make sure your prospective employee knows what the job requirements are and that he or she can be terminated if those requirements are not fulfilled, Bixenstine says.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:32

Ergonomically correct

Employees with carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and lower back problems costs businesses billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and workers' compensation claims.

The sad fact is that most of these musculoskeletal disorders are preventable with a few simple changes in the workplace.

In August, OSHA wrapped up a series of hearings on its $4.2 billion ergonomics proposal that would regulate safety measures to help prevent common workplace injuries. While the final proposal is still under revision, it will be certainly be a hot issue that the president and Congress will deliberate over in the coming year, says Mark Katz, labor and employment attorney for Ulmer & Burne in Cleveland.

"How do you provide rule-making that says thou shalt correct overrepetitive motion?" says Katz, who prosecuted OSHA violations for the U.S. Department of Labor's solicitor's office for 10 years under presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. "That's the real problem from a standpoint of a regulatory authority; there is no simple answer to every specific case."

While it may be several years before OSHA sees any kind of ergonomics standard passed, there are ways to prevent common workplace injuries, says Robert Pater, an author and martial arts expert who incorporates martial arts principles into the program.

"This program focuses on helping employees become very aware of their surroundings and the task at hand so that they are relaxed and comfortable," says Pater, who founded Strategic Safety Associates, an international management and safety consulting firm. "Safety should not be a process or a program; it should be a culture -- a way of life. When you show people how, by using their own minds, to become safer, you're giving your company a benefit that has no price tag."

Here are some basic martial arts based techniques from Pater's program, used by companies including 3M, Boeing, BP Amoco, DuPont, Kodak and Textron.

Set one foot slightly forward, one foot back

This will alleviate strain and fatigue and will take stress off your lower back. Try this at your next presentation or if you have to sit for a long period of time. Be sure to switch feet occasionally.

Unlock your knees when you stand

With your pelvis tilted ever so slightly forward, this takes pressure off your back and keeps you in a balanced posture that creates proper breathing and, therefore, less physical and mental strain. People who lock their knees tend to have very short, shallow breathing that affects oxygen intake and energy levels.

Relieve stress and strain in your neck

If you feel strain while sitting at your desk, sit up straight, tilt your head back and roll your shoulders backwards. Repeat this often.

Your odds of getting a herniated disk are 30 percent higher if you sit a lot on your job. This technique is particularly helpful for relieving pressure and pain caused by long hours of sitting.

Create strength by focusing on your hands

Redirect your focus from your thumb and index finger to your ring and small finger, which is where your natural strength is. Try this focusing exercise with your golf or tennis swing and you will notice more power and strength.

Use the same technique when grabbing something, carrying heavy luggage or reaching for things up high -- concentrate on the neglected ring and small finger.

Shake on it

Firm handshakes can turn into power struggles if they throw you off balance. Next time you shake someone's hand, try these simple techniques that will keep you in balance: When your are face-to-face with someone, getting ready to shake their hand, make sure you are standing with one foot slightly forward; this keeps you balanced and focused and provides more strength.

Concentrate on your ring and small finger when you shake, which adds firmness and give you balance. How to reach: Mark Katz, Ulmer & Burne, (216) 621-8400; Strategic Safety Associates, (503) 977-2094

Morgan Lewis (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter for SBN.

Friday, 19 July 2002 07:02

Evict the squatter

Some companies late to the party on the Web have found their dot-com names claimed by a savvy Web surfer who is demanding hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to give it back.

The good news is, in most cases, you can get it back without paying the cybersquatter for it.

In 1999, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) adopted a policy for resolving disputes over domain names. The policy is similar to that of trademark law, even if the name of the company or the person is not a registered trademark. In recent years, there have been highly publicized suits involving pop star Madonna, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and Reuters News Service.

Late last year, Northeast Ohio's Pete Baur Pontiac won a dispute involving a Cleveland man who registered four domain names featuring Pete Baur's name and tried to sell them to the dealership for a profit. Baur, through the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers' Association, contacted an attorney. The cybersquatter didn't fight the case, but Baur was still required to prove through the online dispute resolution process that he was entitled to the names.

"It's no different than a lawsuit where both sides have a legitimate argument," explains Robert Chudakoff, a partner with Ulmer & Berne LLP and a litigator in the firm's intellectual property/e-commerce group. "One of the things you have to prove is bad faith registration."

Here are four steps Chudakoff recommends you take to reclaim your company's name on the Web.

Hire an attorney.

There are four certified organizations you can use to resolve the domain name dispute online, through the mail or via fax machine. Chudakoff recommends if you only want to go through the process once that you get a lawyer to get the ball rolling. In the Baur case, all it took was a letter from the law firm for the man to relinquish the names.

State your case.

It is paramount that you prove the domain name is either being held in bad faith or the squatter has no legitimate business interest in the name. However, if you're challenging another company with the same name, it's unlikely the case will be successful.

"If there was another legitimate Pete Baur or someone who had a legitimate commercial interest in that name, I probably would not have been able to do it this way," Chudakoff says. "But that's the key. This individual had nothing do with Pete Baur or auto dealers."

Wait for a ruling.

After the complaint is filed, the dispute is usually resolved in less than 90 days, with costs ranging from $750 to $5,000.

"It isn't a small amount, but compared to what it cost for us to sue in federal court and litigate and do discovery, it was cheap," Chudakoff says.

Keep in mind that even if the squatter doesn't dispute the company's right to the domain name, the company still must prove that it has a right to it.

Challenge, if necessary.

In some cases, the panel sides with the squatter if he or she can prove an interest in the name. Within 10 days, the company must file a lawsuit against the squatter and prove to the dispute panel that a lawsuit has been filed.

Once that is completed, the panel's decision will not go into effect until the lawsuit is settled. How to reach: Ulmer & Berne LLP, (216) 621-8400. For a list of approved dispute resolution service providers, visit ICANN at www.icann.org/udrp/approved-providers.htm.Morgan Lewis Jr. (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter at SBN Magazine.

Friday, 19 July 2002 06:38

Old world, new tech

London, Paris, Berlin, Milan. There are a dizzying array of cities a company to open a foreign office in, so where to focus? Steve Potash, president and CEO of OverDrive Inc., fixed his compass to Amsterdam.

"We were looking for a central base of operations to serve not only our partners on the Continent, but also our expanding partners in the U.K.," Potash says. "Amsterdam was geographically well-situated, it was also a good hub of transportation for international air flight, and rail service within Europe."

OverDrive is a digital publisher based in Valley View with customers in major European markets including France, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain. The company's Amsterdam office provides technical and customer support for its growing list of publishing and digital content customers in Europe.

Potash says the key is to narrow your search to cities in a location central to your clients. But he also offers some other factors to consider during the search.

Open for business

A drawing point of Amsterdam was its business-friendly attitude and the willingness of its chamber of commerce to help OverDrive open an office there, Potash says. Most major Western European cities offer incentives to help American companies -- especially those in safe, high-tech industries -- open an office in their city.

"Setting up your mode of operation is a lot less onerous than it is in some of the other markets where there's a lot of legal barriers to setting up a U.S. company doing business," Potash says. "It's just easier to do business there."

Find an insider

The local chamber of commerce is good first step, but try to find other business professionals, preferably from the area in which you're planning to locate, who know the area and can advise you on customs and cultural differences.

Make sure these advisers are objective. An eager city official who wants to bolster the local economy with an American company might gloss over a city's crime rate or unreliable work force.

"We've opened up operations in some other foreign countries and we've found that the money spent on advisers was well-spent," Potash says. "Planning and finding trusted partners that you can rely on is a practice we've benefited from."

Patience is a virtue

Not all companies work at the same whiplash pace as most American companies, especially in the high-tech sector. Some transplanted workers are surprised, and often a little irritated, when their European colleagues don't move at the same pace.

"(American companies) really need to allocate more time for everything," Potash says. "The things that you take for granted, getting a phone number, negotiating certain services, locating vendors, suppliers and employees. Everything is not at the same pace."

IT backbone

Although the city's first settlers arrived in the 12th century, Amsterdam quickly adapted to the new economy in 1990s by installing a strong telecommunication infrastructure in its central city. The same is true for most major cities in Western Europe, and the trend is spreading to the smaller ones. How to reach: OverDrive, (216) 573-6886

Morgan Lewis Jr. (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is a reporter at SBN Magazine.